‘Avatar’, Toxic Shame and Avoidance of Authentic Relationships

At the opening of the movie Avatar, Jake Sully has suffered a severe spinal chord injury that leaves him a paraplegic.  No longer able to perform as a combat marine, and because the military won’t pay for an operation to restore the use of his legs — that is, to return him to his former self — Jake volunteers for a specialized military mission to the planet Pandora.  Through the miracle of medical technology, he learns to psychically link with and inhabit an “avatar” or alternative physical self on that planet.  In contrast to his paraplegic self, this avatar is healthy, fit and stands ten feet tall, with enormous physical prowess and sensory capabilities beyond those of humans. Embodying this avatar allows Jake not only to regain the functions he lost but also to surpass his human potential.  His experience on Pandora ultimately proves to be more real, more meaningful to him than his actual life; at the movie’s end, he finds a way to transcend his human physical damage and move permanently to the realm of his superior Na’vi self.

This story perfectly embodies a dynamic I’ve seen with many clients, where they feel themselves to be so damaged, so filled with basic shame (or toxic shame) that they long to escape into the world of fantasy and become another person entirely.

It’s a particular instance of the dynamic I discussed in my post about hopeless problems, perfect answers. In these cases, avoidance of authentic, realistic relationships is strong; instead, they wish for a perfect relationship with an idealized partner. The Internet has enabled many people to pursue and act out this fantasy — in virtual form, of course, and for a limited time only.

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Narcissistic Behavior and the Lost Art of Conversation

[NOTE:  Narcissism and narcissistic behavior are a primary focus of this website; all posts on that subject can be found under the heading Shame/Narcissism in the category menu to the right.  If you’d rather read a more clinical discussion of narcissistic behavior, you might prefer this post on narcissistic personality disorder, or this one on the relationship between narcissism and self-esteem.  If you want to learn more about the basic signs and symptoms of NPD and how to recognize them, click here.  More recently, I’ve also written about aspects of normal or everyday narcissism that apply to most of us.]


Most people are narcissistic.

I’m not using that word in the clinical diagnostic way, or in the everyday sense of vain or conceited.  What I mean is that most people are almost exclusively focused upon themselves, their personal interests and their own emotional needs for attention. A certain amount of preoccupation with oneself is normal and healthy; it becomes a problem when you’re not truly interested in other people or ideas and only want to talk about yourself.

Here’s a fairly common experience for me:  I’m at a party or social gathering, speaking to someone I’ve just met, or an acquaintance I haven’t seen in a long while.  I’m asking questions, inquiring about the person’s background or catching up since we last met. Fifteen, twenty minutes pass … we’re still talking about the other person.  I get the feeling that I could be anyone; I’m just a receptacle, a mirror or an audience.  I provide needed attention to the other person; he or she has no interest in getting to know the man who’s listening.

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Your Plan for a Person

Most of us have goals and aspirations for the sort of person we’d like to become.  Our ideal self-image is a reflection of the values we hold; it shows us the person we’d be if we were always able to live up to our own standards.  When we succeed, it builds our self-esteem, but when we fail, it has just the opposite effect.

Some people, particularly those burdened with basic shame, often aspire to an ideal self intended to deny underlying damage; it’s a kind of lie about what is underneath rather than a fulfillment of internal values.   From my earliest days in psychotherapy, my therapist would refer to it as my “plan for a person” — the well-educated, well-traveled, sophisticated, multi-lingual artsy-type guy I aspired to be, to disprove how badly I felt about myself, my damage and my depression.  Ugly Joe, as I think of him.   I’ve seen many similar patients during my years of practice; on an unconscious level, they all felt a kind of hopelessness about the extent of their damage and believed the only solution was to fabricate a “new and improved” self from the ground up.  These people had all suffered early emotional trauma of an ongoing nature.

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Basic Shame, Toxic Shame

In this video, I discuss the concept of basic shame and how it shows up in psychotherapy.

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[NOTE:  Shame and its toxic effects are a central theme of my website; all articles related to this topic can be found under the heading Shame/Narcissism in the category menu to the right.  This gateway post contains basic information about the roots of shame in early emotional trauma.  For a case illustration of shame and its effects upon relationships, you might want to read my post about toxic shame avoidance, using the film ‘Avatar’ as a metaphor.  To learn more about core defenses against shame — narcissism, blaming and contempt — click here.  I’ve also written about normal or everyday shame and the process of healing shame.]

When most people use the word shame, they usually mean to describe an experience that comes up because of outside influences — our parents’ disapproval or the opinion of society-at-large, for example.  If I do poorly on a test or my business fails, I might not want anyone else to know because I’m afraid they’ll think less of me.  Shame also arises when we violate our own internal values, but we’ve usually absorbed them from our families and the world around us.

Over my years of psychotherapy practice, I’ve come to understand that there’s another kind of shame, one in many ways distinct from the type described above.  I refer to it as basic shame and I’ll be using that phrase repeatedly on this site.  Here’s my basic shame definition.

When things go very wrong in childhood, for whatever reason — an alcoholic parent, bitter divorce, mental illness in those around you, a mother with bipolar or manic-depressive issues or a father with highly narcissistic behavior — it almost always damages you at your roots and deforms you psychically, just like a birth defect or physical handicap.  You may feel fundamentally afraid and insecure in the world.  You might find it impossible to love and trust other people.  You could be prone to violent emotional outbursts or struggle with an addiction yourself.  If the environment is toxic, we’re almost always damaged by it in lasting ways.  With my clients, I often talk about mental scars or psychological handicaps.  They impose limitations and have to be taken into account just as you would a physical handicap.

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